Snowpiercer, a co-production from the United States and South Korea (and based off of a French graphic novel) was saddled with some high expectations prior to its Sydney Film Festival screening. Bong Joon-ho was coming off of Mother in 2009, a superb play within the crime genre and once more a successful commentary on the nature of family, as in The Host. The five year wait, coupled with the jump across the financial pond from contemporaries Park Chan-wook and Kim Jee-woon, has positioned Snowpiercer as the latest in a trend of highly anticipated films from leading South Korean directors which attempt to break into the world of Western cinema. In this film the elements of something interesting are present – an uprising as narrative plot upon which to hang genre deviations and thematic commentary, a confined space which would force creative solutions with regards to set design and a cavalcade of character actors who have all proved themselves notable in earlier films. Unfortunately, though, Snowpiercer is plagued by narrative problems, wooden dialogue and lacks both the conceptual and narrative intelligence of Director Bong’s prior work.
Out of all of the South Korean modern masters to make an ‘American’ film, perhaps only Park Chan-wook has remained himself. Despite Stoker being completely undermined by a near-audience insulting screenplay, the film’s visuals and score made it compelling despite itself. Kim Jee-woon, whose I Saw the Devil and The Good, The Bad, The Weird are two of the most enjoyable genre deconstructions/homages I’ve seen, made the leap to the United States through the Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle The Last Stand. That film felt like a pale imitation of TGTBTW, especially with Johnny Knoxville as a stand-in for the great oddball characters of Song Kang-ho in Director Kim’s earlier work. Snowpiercer, in some sense, was meant to avoid the pitfalls of translation by having a South Korean actor (Kang-ho) as the lead opposite an American (Chris Evans). The trouble is, though, the film doesn’t feel like Bong Joon-ho’s work – poorly constructed characters, a filmsy ending and a lack of any subtlety are not his hallmarks.
I am a fairly big fan of Bong Joon-Ho’s filmography; The Host and Memories of Murder are enjoyable and clever twists on genre confines whilst Mother is one of the strongest modern murder mysteries. I am so enamoured with its structure and plotting that it has harmed almost every film of that ilk I have seen since. The plot for Snowpiercer, whilst founded in the logic of graphic novels, seems overly simplistic – a train represents the classes of society, a revolt as need for change in our modern ‘1%’ society. That’s fine, though, as the very nature of this apocalyptic narrative requires many grains of salt. What is problematic is that beyond this we have characters nothing more than their circumstances (son kidnapped, revenge for arm missing) and most only present in the story to deliver exposition. There’s even one who exists as both overdone plot mechanic and contrived tribute to a brilliant dystopic film – John Hurt’s Gilliam.1
The decision to cast Evans, who is fairly underwhelming in this role, feels a little off. For one, a character who says he “can’t be a leader” right after clearly leading others (and who is played by Chris Evans) may be even more aggravating than Ivan Locke’s desire to do something “right” – it’s a subplot entirely unnecessary and takes away from the first act narrative. In addition to that, his backstory, as revealed near the film’s end, is so cliche-ridden as to clearly render him nothing but caricature. Song Kang-ho, though, once more proves his talent, taking a character who exists solely as plot device and making him amusing, even carrying the clearly telegraphed and limp emotional reveal near the end. Solid performances turned in from Ko Ah-sung (whose emergence here feels like a throwback to The Host but that throwback gives reason to view Snowpiercer in a relatively poor light) and the ever-engaging Tilda Swinton, whose minster (by way of politician) brought out the absurdity in the storyline reasonably effectively. I do wish, though, that Director Bong and co-screenwriter Kelly Masterson had explored this notion of religious obsession and the power of the minister figure more, in particular as it has no bearing on the back carriage in the film. Whilst an amusing scene featuring Allison Pill as a schoolteacher deals with it to some degree, touching on indoctrination in a way both amusing and overly simplistic, it feels like an opportunity missed in adding some more detail to the world of broad strokes.
The trips into absurdity in the film feel less like amusing asides than tonal disconnect, a major battle sequence interrupted to celebrate the new year falling completely flat, this in clear contrast to Bong’s ability to interject scenes of comedy into the dark narratives of The Host and Mother. The reaction from the State audience seemed to confirm the film’s inability to fully connect. When Chris Evans suddenly describes the ‘horror’ of the back carriage as a means through which to try and convince Song Kang-ho to open the final door (so from the outset it’s oddly positioned exposition), the audience enrupted into laughter at what is meant to be the most shocking and emotive point of that speech, and perhaps the entire film. The narrative conclusion to the recurring motif of ‘arms’ was likewise laughed at in the screening – meant to be a clear and important piece of characterisation.2 One element the film does get right, though, is the notion of ‘storytelling’ as concept (the film often fails in practice), with a sketch artist chronicling the events of the film a sit goes along acting as both a reference to the source material and a neat connection to a reveal near the end.
The film’s thematic concerns are fairly heavy handed, as expected – classes via carriages, represented through visual decadence, “I am the head, you are the foot” et al – with the dialogue exchange at the film’s conclusion, meant to drastically alter the way in which we view the train as allegory, not working effectively for me either. It feels tacked on and rings false, the actor who plays the ‘great Wilford’, struggling with the overwrought dialogue meant to recharacterise the film’s notions of oppression and societal construct.
The actual ‘cinematic’ scenes generally underwhelm. Despite mostly interesting cinematography from Hong Kyung-pyo, the scenes of violence are lacking in their execution. The film has a fantastic scene early on where a man is punished for throwing a shoe by having his arm frozen, although a discussion of the shoe as both literal and figurative object during this sequence tries its best to hamper it. Beyond this scene, though, the film then steps away from such creativity through a slow-motion axe battle in a carriage that has jarringly delayed sound effects and makes Chris Evans look like he’s warming up for a scene rather than acting it out.3 The decision to cut away from many somewhat pivotal scenes of depravity reads more like the film hunting a PG-13 rating than any stylistic restraint. The visual effects, essentially everything outside of the train, are surprisingly bad as well, looking more like a video game than a film. Whilst there’s an argument to the video game nature of the plot and aesthetic – levelling up, so to speak and the Bioshock tones – even that wouldn’t necesarily redeem many of the narrative and stylistic flaws.
Overall it’s a film that is less bad than disappointing, Director Bong trading his usual wit and intelligence for dumbed (and watered) down science fiction concepts and execution. It may have been better if pared down narratively as well, the final fifteen minutes were a huge derailment of most of the goodwill I had left. Snowpiercer is a misfire on quite a large scale and cannot hold a candle to his earlier films. The American influence once more renders a crossover film by a South Korean master underwhelming and unnecessary.
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